Breaking Down Barriers

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A recent UBC news publication highlighted the fact that there are 12,300 visits to the Emergency Room (ER) each year in B.C. related to non-traumatic dental issues.  As well, a recent study published this month (September 2017) in the Canadian Journal of Public Health highlighted the cost of ER visits for preventable problems, such as tooth decay, and shared interviews with 25 people with mental illness and addiction who reported feeling stigmatized when they tried to access dental services.

Oral care providers understand fully that the cost of dental care is a key barrier to access. We also understand that marginalized populations often feel stigmatized in health care settings when they do seek care.  The fact is these numbers make it clear that people are not getting access to preventative care for problems like caries or gum disease which in turn leads to a larger problem that then causes them to seek help in the ER.

According to the UBC Research; “ER visits for preventable dental conditions cost B.C. about $1.5 to $3 million annually.” (https://news.ubc.ca/2017/09/14/preventable-dental-problems-land-many-in-the-emergency-room/)  This is far beyond the costs of the necessary preventative care that visits to a dental hygienist or dentist might incur. Yet, because oral care is not part of the Canada Health Act, there still seems to be little systemic understanding of the link between oral health and overall health. Add to this stigmatized populations who feel unwelcome in a variety of health care settings and the problem is clear.

What can we as primary care providers do to help with this?   

For the last seven years, UBC Dental Hygiene and a community-based mental health organization located in Burnaby have collaborated to run a mobile dentistry clinic that allows residents to get free preventative care from fourth-year dental hygiene students.  This has not only helped to increase the level of good oral care for the community, but has built relationships between the oral care providers and the residents who have grown increasingly comfortable with the providers.

Without a doubt this is a fantastic program that demonstrates clearly that dental hygienists can make a positive and meaningful impact on population health. Apart from this program though, what else can we do as dental hygienists who work in a variety of settings across B.C.?

Dental hygienists are advocates for our patients every day. We know their history, we see what impacts their overall health has made in their oral health, and vice versa, and we have the opportunity to be able to communicate with them each and every time they come and see us.  By remembering our role as primary health care providers, we can make a difference in ensuring that people have access to oral care.  We can also volunteer our time at reduced cost clinics as well as on days like ‘Gift from the Heart’. This begins to allow each of us to chip away at the cost barriers some of our patients face.

I challenge us all to not just read these studies that highlight the dangers of not having preventative oral care, but to act on them as well.  One step at a time, one dental hygienist at a time, we can make a difference.